The Kings of Leon recently made the news when they canceled the remainder of a summer tour after lead singer Caleb Followill left a Dallas stage mid-show in a state of agitation that many assumed was inebriation. “I have to go backstage and vomit,” he said before disappearing. He is “recuperating” but not everyone is buying it — brother and fellow band member Jared Followill tweeted about “internal sicknesses … that need to be addressed.”
What may have been a disaster for Kings of Leon fans, not to mention their concert insurers, is perfect publicity for Stephen Mitchell’s documentary “Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings of Leon,” which has its premiere on Showtime on Sunday. Mitchell was among the first to work with the band back when the two older Followill brothers had to buy younger brother Jared a bass so he could learn how to play, and convince cousin Matthew to leave his own equally conservative family to join them.
Opening with preparations for a Followill family reunion in Talihina, Okla., Mitchell has created something between a concert movie and a documentary, a film with tone poem aspirations that it occasionally achieves. Those hoping for insight into this summer’s events may find them but only by reading between the lines, which are often unnecessarily tangled and blurry.
The band’s back story is certainly documentary-ready. The Followill brothers are the sons of a Pentecostal minister who traveled the South staging revival meetings. Though other evangelical preachers started mega churches and became wealthy, Ivan Leon Followill remained vagabond and poor — the two older boys, Caleb and Nathan, remember owning just two pairs of pants and living in the ghetto of Oklahoma City. Early on, they swore their own children would have a different life. “I thought, ‘If I’m going to be a preacher,’” Caleb says, “‘I’m going to have a second job because my kids will never live like this.’”
Home-schooled and taught that popular music, like television, was the work of Satan, the boys lived in a world where the nearby creek served as babysitter and even 6-year-olds longed to speak in tongues. When their father’s drinking led to their parents’ divorce, Caleb and Nathan decided to use the musical gifts they had devoted for so long to God in a more practical way. They formed their band, named after their grandfather Leon, and began embracing all that had previously been labeled as sinful.
Mitchell consciously, and self-consciously, contrasts the trappings of rock-star fame — the drinking, the drugs, the groupies, the screaming fans — with the backwoods life the Followills left behind. The film is at its most powerful when it focuses on the people of Talihina, many of whom could have stepped off the set of “Justified.” Their pride in the Followill boys is palpable even if their understanding of the world the band inhabits is limited — a story of how the town’s phone lines lighted up after the issue of Rolling Stone with the Kings of Leon on the cover was part of a prize on “The Price Is Right” is both hilarious and heartbreaking.
The similarities between the band’s past and present — the endless days on the road, the physical abandon of a revival meeting and a rock concert — are telling, if illustrated with a heavy hand, and Mitchell captures the noise and fury of the band’s days and nights so effectively that the narrative thread, slender to begin with, is often lost in all the color. Those not familiar with the band or its music will not be much enlightened — Mitchell mixes up footage, using black and white and color, with no attempt to clarify chronology. One might be able to mark time through haircuts but that is asking too much of even the most devoted audience.
Still the tension between the Followills’ past — which will seem to many Americans more 19th century than 21st — and the modern hedonism of their present is remarkable and may in fact explain why the center did not hold for the Kings of Leon this summer.